Minnesota conservation officers are trying to keep pace with more field demands

From Warroad to Windom, reports from Minnesota conservation officers this time of year are a comprehensive sheet of recreational law enforcement around popular mass activities, such as snowmobiling and ice fishing.

Last week, a group of officers working in the Bemidji area met with a local club of about 500 snowmobilers, a significant number of whom were reportedly ticketed and taught how to display registration correctly.

When officers, or commanders for short, and their state colleagues failed to check ice shelter permits and Arctic Cat registrations, there were cases of wolf depredation and overfeeding. deer to investigate; meetings with the public on the ethics of hunting and fishing; and make their presence known at fishing and dog sledding events.

“It’s great to see everyone coming out,” Lt. Col. Rodmen Smith said Monday, “but it’s adding stress to our system.” Smith is the Director of the Law Enforcement Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

Their reports read like too much good stuff these days for commanders. The pandemic-fueled explosion of motorized recreation alone — from new boaters and paddlers to off-road vehicle drivers — has added demands as COs try to keep pace in numbers.

The DNR currently has 160 officers, but has 25 vacancies at 155 stations, the majority in the northwest and southwest. Retirements are also looming. Smith said he expects eight to 12 OCs eligible for retirement each year in the near term. He said current numbers are closer to those of the 1940s.

“It’s problematic,” Smith said.

The officers themselves, CO union representatives to the Minnesota Conservation Officers Association (MCOA) are concerned that staffing has not kept pace with pressures on natural resources and in areas that were not the area of ​​former game wardens. COs are stretched: coverage for dark stations; watch the masses outside; take the time to train to keep abreast of rule changes and enforcement reforms; assume specialist areas in wetland protection and aviation; support local agencies and more.

But Joe Stattelman, MCOA chairman and water resources law enforcement official, is proud of his colleagues’ response.

“I think there are times when we get overwhelmed,” he said, “but one of the best skills we have is to handle what’s in front of us well.”

A new class of 18 to 22 recruits who begin training at the academy in May will join the ranks after graduation next year. They will be stationed in early 2023. There have been no new entrants this year.

CO Caleb Silgjord welcomes the new class, but says it’s a “band-aid” for now. Officers will still be in deficit amid vacancies and likely retirements.

“It’s hard to catch up with those kinds of numbers,” said Sauk Center-based Silgjord.

Another challenge is interest in work. Difficulty recruiting new officers is a nationwide story for all law enforcement agencies. The cause is complex, with answers in questions such as public trust, societal stress and new generations with different attitudes towards jobs and careers.

The DNR is also attracting fewer applicants, Smith said, and particularly through traditional hiring. For example, the division had 348 applicants in 2016. This year: 133.

The division’s CO Prep program, which began in 2015, is a source of new recruits and a positive counterweight to traditional recruiting. Applicants to the program are not required to have a law enforcement background, common for decades on resumes in conservation law enforcement. New recruits to the readiness program learn law enforcement for 20 weeks before continuing CO-specific training at the division’s officer academy at Camp Ripley near Little Falls.

The readiness program also helped achieve strategic divisional hiring goals. The DNR has hired and graduated more women, minorities and at-risk candidates such as recently separated veterans since 2015. Of the 73 officers hired from the last five academies, 20 were women, 14 minorities and 14 veterans. fighters. The most recent academy in 2020 included four women, five minorities and four veterans.

A passion for protecting the state’s natural resources is only part of the equation for a newcomer looking for a job, said Capt. Jeff Johanson, training and recruiting manager.

“We really focus on the personal traits and qualities of the individual…like integrity and courage, decision-making and judgement,” he said.

Smith takes pride in the division’s high-quality hires and said it’s important for COs to look like and identify with the public they encounter on the lakes, at the trailhead or at a public gathering.

“We’ve never had so many women or people of color or veterans on our team,” he said.

This sense of community is what makes their work distinctive, officers say. It’s community policing at its core, Stattelman and Silgjord said.

Now, even amid contract negotiations and on-field stressors, Stattelman said the COs will be looking to recharge as winter gives way to spring. These transitions remind them of their professional – and personal – connection to the outdoors. And there is pride in public service.

“We know how to take a step back, rely on each other and lean on each other,” he said.

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